(from the Fall 2016 Macomb Now Magazine)
By Denis LeDuc
In the middle of a bustling suburb there is an unexpected slice of heaven. River Bends Park, in Shelby Township, is home to many plants and animals, and is a lovely place for picnics and relaxation. Within the boundaries of the park are many opportunities for recreation, including a sledding hill, an RC race track, a trap as well as a soccer field and baseball diamond. Visitors would never imagine that his public park was once the personal retreat of boxing legend and equestrian, Joe Louis.
Originally called Spring Hill Farm, the property was first owned by Peter Lerick, who was a conductor for the underground railroad. The route was marked by a massive cedar, know as “The Beacon Tree.” Escaped slaves found food, drink and safety, provided by the Lerich family, until they could resume their journey north toward Canada under the cover of night. It was nothing fancy, but it was secure, the log lined cave in the hillside wouldn’t be found until long after slavery was abolished in 1865.
The Beacon Tree was chopped down in 1888, when Spring Hill was sold to the McVitte family, who then sold it to Charles Weeks of Weeks Lumber company. Weeks owned the property for almost 30 years .In 1938, ownership was passed Joe Louis, heavy weight boxing champion, to convert into a training camp and horse track. Electrical lines and a well were installed. The house became a well-known restaurant nightclub for local residents and friends of Louis Families would come the 24 miles from Detroit to eat at Joe’s and watch the races. You see Louis here with two of his racing horses ready for the day’s race in January, 1942. Joe Louis enlisted as a private in the United States Army, and began fighting to raise money for the military. He raised roughly $90,0000 in a series of charity fights which the IRS credited to him as taxable income.
In 1944, most of the farm grounds were sold to the Michigan State Conservation Department and coverted into a park. The remaining 18 acres, which included the restaurant and track, were bought by John Roxborough, Joe’s manager, and his associates, who kept them operating until 1953, when the farm became a private residence.
On January 22, 1973 the house at Spring Hill Farm caught on fire. The fire burned quickly and the house was lost. The farm had been abandoned and in disrepair for a few years and the remaining structures were demolished. Today the property is owned by the Michigan Department of Natural resources and is open to the public, offering recreation and relaxation in the middle of bustling Shelby Township.
Photo from Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.